Photograph by Austin Perez
Photograph by Shekar Dattatri/Conservation India
Can one billion people, wild animals struggling to persist, and an economy starved for land survive and thrive together? Conservation biologist Krithi K. Karanth is realistic, hopeful, and clearly not looking for an easy job. She is out to analyze complex human-wildlife interactions in one of the planet's most populous hot spots: India.
The challenges to peaceful coexistence are many. As the booming economy continues to grow, pressure is increasing on the last 3 percent of protected, undeveloped land. Some of the world's most iconic species—tigers and Asian elephants—are clinging to slivers of protected national parks, while successful urbanites are completely cut off from nature. Endangered wildlife is being pushed out of its habitat and in turn has been decimating the crops of impoverished villagers.
Karanth feels wise solutions can be based only on facts that reflect the whole, true, cross section of India's landscapes and populations—data that she has found surprisingly lacking. She's responding with rigorous surveys and mapping that will be crucial to strengthening protection for parks, encouraging cultural tolerance for wildlife, and compensating people suffering from conflict with animals.
Her firsthand experience with wildlife started early. Karanth's father, Dr. K. Ullas Karanth, one of India's most renowned conservationists, began bringing her into the jungle when she was one year old. She spotted her first leopard at age three, and by eight tagged along to track tigers. She in turn is passing along her passion for wildlife to her own child. On a recent expedition, her four-year-old daughter saw her first leopard. "We were with my parents, and all three generations of us sat in absolute silence, taking in the moment, watching this amazing leopard. There are not enough words to describe that memory."
How many animals will become just a memory? Karanth compiled a massive extinction survey documenting how many species have disappeared across India in the last hundred years, why certain animals persist, and which mammals may face extinction in the future.
"Habitat loss, hunting, illegal wildlife trade, and poaching have caused dramatic, widespread declines of species that were plentiful just one century ago," she reports. "The most important finding from the survey is that protected areas really do matter. These protected areas, along with human cultural tolerance, play a very important role in why some species are able to survive."
Today, humans and wildlife share precious space along park edges with varying degrees of success. "Our media is filled with stories about animals in conflict with people," says Karanth. "But often this is based on reactionary information from only one or two villages. I'm amazed at the lack of widespread data. My idea is to map and predict risks for conflict over an entire landscape. We are visiting about 2,000 villages across a 2,700-square-mile area that surrounds some of southwest India's important parks to get a true sense of what is and isn't working, not just a handful of isolated incidents. Until we have all the facts, it's dangerous to make generalizations about human-wildlife conflict being on the rise. This survey and mapping will help us develop mitigating measures and policy-level interventions that can be focused and truly effective."
Karanth is involving 150 "citizen scientists" to interview villagers and collect survey data. "The volunteers I take into the field are often urban dwellers who are very disconnected from nature and rural India. The experience gives them a whole new appreciation for the challenges of conservation and the reality of people who live in these landscapes. In some villages, people break down in tears and tell us they lose 95 percent of their crops each year due to raiding by wild animals. They cannot make a living or send their children to school; they beg us to do something to help. In other villages, people seem to expect and accept that crops and livestock will be lost. This is why it's critical to survey a wide cross section of people who come from different backgrounds, grow different crops, and live different distances from parks."
Much human-wildlife conflict results from fragmentation that has eliminated crucial corridors used by wildlife to move from one protected area to another. "We must maintain connectivity so animals like elephants are protected as they travel through agricultural fields between parks," Karanth notes.
Karanth's passion for animals does not cloud her empathy for people. "We must provide good, fair compensation to landholders near parks so they don't retaliate when species move through and destroy crops. We need local support and tolerance to ensure that sanctuaries and the species inside them survive."
In some cases, resettling villagers away from parks may be the answer. However, Karanth again finds a dearth of data. She is planning a huge project to monitor resettlement and evaluate how the process is implemented and document how people are compensated. "In some places they have been given cash. In other places, cash plus land," she explains. "We need to make sure people are not forcibly pushed out, but supported when they do want to move."
Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary in southern India handled resettlement so successfully it inspired a national policy to improve compensation for families voluntarily choosing to move. Analyzing such successes, as well as failures, via Karanth's survey will help establish best practices for resettling future generations.
Local farmers are far from the only pressure India's wildlife faces. New mining leases, industrial plants, and power lines accompany the nation's dramatic growth and development. Karanth acknowledges that "money lifts people out of poverty, but there has to be a balance. If it's all about economic growth at the expense of the few parks we have left, wildlife will disappear."
"The world sees India as a place teeming with one billion people," she says. "In fact, we also have a surprising wealth of incredible wildlife—40 percent of the world's tigers, most of the world's Asian elephants, and many endemic species as well. No place on the planet has this many people and this much wildlife coexisting. It can persist if enough people care and fight to preserve it. This is not a country you can write off."
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